Carr Bomb returns with the first in a two day series on North Korea.
It’s all but become common knowledge that North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-Il is nothing but an unruly teenager, screaming for attention. But the current administration needs to start taking seriously the implications that failure to find a fresh, quick approach to solving the North Korean problem could have on the region and the world. President Obama must realize that hard-line talk one minute, and cushy diplomatic visits by former presidents the next sends a confusing and weak message to North Korea, our allies in East Asia, and the world.
First, a brief North Korean history lesson. With its patron state collapsing in 1991, China engaging in heavy trade with the United States, and Eternal President Kim Il-Sung on the verge of death, North Korea found itself exposed and began progressively developing its own nuclear deterrent. The US and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework in 1994, with the assistance of former President Jimmy Carter, wherein North Korea promised to end enrichment in exchange for US assistance in modernizing power plants, within no specific timeframe.
However, when the Republicans won a Congressional majority that same year, funding for US obligations was cut off and progress was considerably slowed, which made the DPRK drag its feet in nuclear disarmament. The highest level official state visit occurred when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in 2000 to confirm that North Korea was ending its nuclear program and offer concessions in exchange for more progress.
When the Bush Administration took power in 2001, the US had not met its obligation to deliver a light water reactor under the Agreed Framework, and North Korea had continued to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons use. The Bush Administration declared North Korea to be part of the “Axis of Evil” and adopted a more hard-line approach to Pyongyang. During this time, North Korea increased weapons exchanges with other rogue states (including most prominently US “ally” in the War on Terror, Pakistan) and began to conduct ever-more-provocative nuclear weapons and missile tests.
The six-party talks in 2007 concluded that progress would be made, within no specific timeframe, towards a formal peace treaty, as opposed to an armistice, between the two Koreas, nuclear disarmament, and normalization of US-North Korean relations. In 2008, after a period of feet-dragging and tension between the two nations, North Korea agreed to allow inspections of available materials in exchange for the US removing it from the list of States Sponsoring Terrorism.
In 2009, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear weapons test and has since conducted several missile tests as well as abducting two American journalists. On August 4th, former President Bill Clinton made an unannounced visit to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of Euna Lee and Laura Ling of Current TV, which may have been but probably wasn’t a “solely private mission”.
After fifteen years of little progress, it’s clear that the Obama Administration needs to adopt a fresh policy to curb this out-of-control nation. Recently, newspapers have been inundated with “alternative” solutions for North Korea, which basically fall into four distinct families.
(1) Soft-Unilateral: engage with North Korea directly; offer concessions in exchange for non-proliferation and disarmament. While the Obama Administration does not acknowledge complicity in former President Clinton’s recent trip to Pyongyang to secure the release of journalists Lee and Ling, it would seem consistent with Democratic policy since the 1994 Agreed Framework. During this time, another former Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, acted as envoy for the US and showed a friendly face to Pyongyang after years of hard-line diplomacy (until 1991, the US had up to 950 nuclear warheads pointed directly at North Korea). Furthermore, many Clinton Administration officials, especially former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, feel progress was being made and was “undone” by the Bush Administration’s abrupt about-face in 2002.
That being said, the recent nuclear test and missile launches drew condemnation from even traditional North Korean allies and Six-Party Talks members Russia and China, and North Korea has allegedly ceased its weapons exchanges and funding of terrorist groups. It would be foolish to fail to acknowledge that progress has also been made on North Korea under the Bush Administration. Obama must be careful not to repeat that administration’s mistake of basically nullifying all prior agreements upon entering office. It would allow Kim Jong-Il to think he can just stall until the next election.
Whether complicit or not, the Obama Administration’s allowing Bill Clinton to travel to Pyongyang for a photo-op after years of hard-line diplomacy sends mixed messages to the North Korean regime and to our allies in East Asia. Clinton’s visit sends the symbolic gesture that his administration’s style of unilateral, soft diplomacy is going to be resurrected under Obama, that the US is more concerned with petty party politics than with anti-proliferation, and that North Korea doesn’t have to adhere to any of its prior agreements and can begin proliferation activities anew.
(2) Hard-Multilateral: consider North Korea an enemy of the United States; impose multilateral sanctions. Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial by former Dick Cheney national security advisor Stephen Yeats and former State Department deputy special envoy for North Korean human rights issues Christian Whiton suggesting a “new” approach for diplomacy to North Korea.
The editorial likened the actions of former President Bill Clinton in securing the release of hostages Euna Lee and Laura Ling to “rewarding Pyongyang for bad behavior”. Yeats and Whiton suggest that, instead of bribing Kim Jong-Il’s regime to not take journalists hostage, the US assemble a formal planning group for regional powers to both strengthen alliances and put additional pressure on Pyongyang, similar to NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, which supposedly strengthened US hegemony in Europe in the 1960’s and showed the Soviet Union a united front during the early days of the Cold War. Of course, in addition to being a not-so-veiled continuation of the Six-Party framework, Yeats and Whiton`s proposal begs the question: why would China and Russia join an organization that revolves around a US nuclear deterrent when they already have one?
Moreover, for economic sanctions to have any effect on North Korea, both Russia and China, as the bulk of North Korean trade, must be given the most prominent seats at the table. Moscow and Beijing are strongly opposed to increased sanctions, and, since China is financing our rapidly increasing treasury debt, our bargaining power would be limited. If the Obama Administration goes ahead with a continuance of a hard-line, sanctions-based, multilateral policy towards North Korea, this would inevitably result in the US making major concessions to China, such as withdrawing our troops from South Korea or allowing PRC hegemony over Taiwan.
Furthermore, instead of strengthening alliances in the region, inevitable concessions for China arising from a hard-line, multilateral approach would most likely alienate both South Korea and Japan, who are dependent on the US as military protector and suspicious of China. As a response to growing Chinese regional hegemony, Japan or South Korea would very likely do exactly what France did in the 1960’s and develop an independent nuclear deterrent.
The former are the policies that have been tried and my general interpretation of the two major political parties’s proposed, enacted solutions. The last two strategies differ strikingly from mainstream methodologies and I will expand upon them tomorrow.